Alaska Congressman Blames Government Handouts for Suicide
By Zaz Hollander
An unapologetic U.S. Rep. Don Young on Wednesday wasn't backing down from statements he made Tuesday at Wasilla High School that suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family.
The comment stunned students and staff reeling from the suicide death of a student last week and sent ripples through Alaska's suicide prevention community. Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the country.
Young on Wednesday was back in the Valley, this time talking with about 100 people at the Palmer senior center run by Mat-Su Senior Services.
Asked about the "lack of support" comment, Young expanded on it and added that suicide in Alaska didn't exist before "government largesse" gave residents an entitlement mentality, according to an audio recording of his senior center appearance.
He also criticized school administrators for supporting students who disrespected him and said he refused to "coddle" them.
The audio was provided to Alaska Dispatch News by the campaign office of Forrest Dunbar, Young's Democratic rival for his 22nd term.
The 81-year-old Young is the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, with a reputation for ornery behavior and brash language.
But Tuesday's outburst at Wasilla High School touched a nerve, officials there say.
Numerous witnesses said the congressman, answering a teacher's question about Alaska's high suicide rate, told 120 students and at least seven staff members gathered in the school theater that suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family.
Last Thursday, a well-known student at the school committed suicide.
Witnesses said the room went quiet. A friend of the victim shouted to Young that a disease, depression, was at the root of suicide. Young bristled at the interruption and responded to the student with profanity.
School staff members, including principal Amy Spargo, later expressed disappointment with Young's behavior, which also included statements about getting drunk in Paris and likening same-sex marriage to bull sex.
The congressman's office issued a written statement Tuesday evening saying he "should have taken a much more sensitive approach" during the suicide discussion.
Young, however, sounds defiant in Wednesday's audio from the senior center.
On the recording, an audience member can be heard asking if he wants to restate the "lack of support" comment.
He tells the audience suicide is a mental illness, not a disease, and then says that he was frustrated at the high school Tuesday by three 18-year-olds "sitting over in a corner" interrupting other students and him. One was apparently the student who spoke up Tuesday, a friend of the victim.
"And then he had the gall to say suicide is a disease," Young says in the recording. "It is not a disease. It is an illness. Now a lot of times that illness should be recognized by a support group and it should be supported by the teachers that recognize this person has an illness. He needs help. Is it his parents or is it his friends who are not supporting him?"
He says that issue, one of the largest in the state, needs to be addressed.
Young, who settled in the 700-person village of Fort Yukon after coming to the new state in 1959, also shares comments that seem to reflect the perspective of his time in rural Alaska.
"When people had to work and had to provide and had to keep warm by putting participation in cutting wood and catching the fish and killing the animals, we didn't have the suicide problem," he says on the recording.
Suicide comes from federal government largesse "saying you are not worth anything but you are going to get something for nothing," he says.
Young also took Wasilla officials to task.
"I am very upset with the school system that would take the side of individuals that are being disrespectful to their fellow students," he says.
Wasilla High principal Spargo said Wednesday afternoon she didn't have anything else to add to the conversation.
"We just differ on our perception of this. It's OK," she said, adding that the whole furor over Young's comments was provoking positive conversations about suicide prevention at the school.
Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow in an email statement Wednesday evening said the congressman was "serious and forthright when discussing the issue of suicide, in part because of the high number of tragedies that affect Alaska youth and his own personal experiences with dealing with a troubled family member."
Shuckerow said in a phone conversation that only Young could provide more information about the personal experiences referenced in the statement. Young did not comment.
Shuckerow, in his email, also said Young identified multiple factors involved in suicide including depression, alcohol and hopelessness, "particularly for rural students who don't see any opportunities to work or contribute to society."
He said the congressman extends his condolences to "the student's family and the Wasilla High School community. He regrets that his comments caused additional pain during this difficult time."
Young's opponent, Dunbar, released a written statement Wednesday saying the situation has "gone past the point of bizarre" and it's clear Young isn't going to change.
"In the last two days I have gone from shocked, to sadness, to anger," Dunbar said. "If Don Young honestly believes that the suicide crisis in Alaska is because of public assistance programs, and he also believes that Wasilla High administrators were 'coddling' students dealing with the death of a classmate, then he is completely out of touch."
Young's comments at Wasilla on Tuesday also came up during this week's meeting of Alaska's Statewide Suicide Prevention Council in Seward.
Executive director Kate Burkhart said the council on Wednesday morning discussed coverage of Young as well as an unrelated story about a Tanana 4-H Club formed to prevent suicide.
"Alaskans attempt and die by suicide for a complex number of reasons. Many of those people have loving and supportive friends and family," Burkhart wrote in an email Wednesday. "The council encourages every Alaskan to reach out to help people in crisis or at-risk of suicide, and to support survivors of a loss to suicide in healing."
There are resources to help youths and adults who feel alone or at risk of suicide, she said.
Careline is the statewide help line for people in crisis or people who think a friend might be at risk of suicide, at 1-877-266-4357. Burkhart suggested After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools as a resource for schools and communities. The Statewide Suicide Prevention Plan, Casting the Net Upstream, includes strategies and resources that can help individuals, families and communities prevent suicide and support healing, she said.
This week's comments on suicide were the latest controversial moments from Young, famous for years of brash behavior. More recent examples: twisting the arm of a congressional staffer who apparently surprised him; making faces as a colleague discussed naming a post office for a U.S. Marine killed in Afghanistan; and calling California farm workers "wetbacks."
Dunbar last month said Young told him not to touch him before a Kodiak debate, adding, "The last guy who touched me ended up on the ground dead," after the younger man brushed his arm.
The Wasilla outburst wasn't even Young's first in front of teenagers. The congressman in 1995 ended up apologizing to students at West Valley High in Fairbanks after he used a sexual vulgarity while denouncing government funding for the arts, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Spargo said Wednesday morning before the senior center event that Young's office on Tuesday sent her an email expressing his regret and saying he "didn't intend to offend" anyone or be insensitive.
She said she planned to share the statement with staff at a meeting Thursday and with students on Friday.
That is when Wasilla will hold an after-school suicide-prevention event, a walk on the school's cross-country trails, to remember the student who died last week.
(c)2014 Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)